Summer Opponent Preview: Navy Midshipmen

USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame will look to score 50+ points for the third year in a row during the 87th meeting with Navy.

After losing 3 out of 4 to Navy (still hurts to type that) the Irish have blown out the Middies in back-to-back seasons and have scored over 100 points in this meetings. These programs famously met to begin the 2012 season in Ireland and the matchup returns to Notre Dame Stadium later this fall. Here is a summer preview of the United States Naval Academy.

NAVY MIDSHIPMEN

Navy_medium

Location: Annapolis, MD

Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (6th year)

2012 Record: 8-5

2012 S&P Ranking: 88

'12 S&P Offense: 75

'12 S&P Defense: 99

'12 FEI Rating: 103

Navy got back to a bowl game after a 5-win season in 2011 but they didn't open up last fall in the best of ways. After a 50-10 loss to the Irish in Ireland the Middies have 4 turnovers burn them in a 34-7 loss to Penn State. They picked up their first win of the season against VMI but fell to 1-3 on the season after a shutout loss to San Jose State---one of Navy's worst offensive performances (144 total yards) in a decade.

A crazy overtime win over Air Force sparked a turnaround to Navy's season as they reeled off 4 more wins in a row over Central Michigan, Indiana, East Carolina, and Florida International. A shootout loss to Troy gave the Middies their 4th loss of the season but they closed out the regular season with wins over Texas State and Army---the latter securing their first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 2009.

Their bowl game against Arizona State didn't go too well getting down 34-7 at halftime and surrendering 648 total yards to the Sun Devils.

Q&A with Mike from The Birddog:

1. Keenan Reynolds played really well as a freshman in 2012. Were you able to get a good look at him as the starter in the second half of the season and do you think the sky is the limit as far as his potential is concerned? What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Trey Miller caught sort of a tough break last year. Navy was 1-3 after 4 games, with those three losses coming to teams that finished a combined 31-7. While he struggled in those games, Trey looked great against Air Force, rushing for 110 yards and going 3-3 passing before leaving the game with an injury in the 4th quarter. Keenan Reynolds stepped in, Navy won in overtime, and the rest is history. After throwing for 3 TDs in a win over Central Michigan the next week and following it up with a comeback win over Indiana, the coaches decided to stick with Keenan even after Trey was healthy again.

As an outside observer it's hard to gauge potential outside of the obvious. When a team goes 6-2 while starting a freshman quarterback, it's natural to assume that things will only get better as that quarterback matures. The coaches certainly haven't been shy about their opinion of Keenan's potential. Keenan has a natural understanding of this offense that we've rarely seen from a freshman. He will do things on the field that the coaches will think is a mistake at the time, only to find that Keenan made the right call once they watch the film. He just has that knack in reading defenses.

What has the coaches excited, though, is that he's not content to rely on his good instincts. His work ethic is incredible, both in practice and in studying film, which is even more amazing considering everything that's on a Navy freshman's plate. As the burdens of being a plebe are removed, he's only going to grow more focused. Keenan still has a lot of work to do when it comes to making option reads; it's one thing to understand the big picture of the offense, but reading your keys to decide whether to keep vs. give to the fullback is something you only learn through repetition. With his work ethic, though, I'm sure we'll see steady improvement in that area

2. The Midshipmen were held to a combined 17 points in 3 early season losses last year. With 7 starters returning on offense are you expecting a more productive unit on this side of the ball in 2013?

Sure, considering that it was more productive through the last eight games of last season. The most significant difference between Navy's 1-3 start and their 6-2 finish last year was turnovers. That's where Keenan made his biggest impact. Navy gave up 12 turnovers in its first four games, but only had 7 over the rest of the season while averaging 30 points per game. The offense will be fine as long as they don't give the ball away.

3. Navy is losing an explosive player in slotback Gee Gee Greene who leaves Annapolis with 3,757 all-purpose yards for his career. Who will be the top playmaker to step up on offense in Greene's absence?

This offense revolves around the quarterback more than most, and that's even more true with Keenan because of his arm. The story of the Navy offense this year might not be what playmaker steps up to replace Gee Gee, but rather what the coaches do to take advantage of Keenan's skill set. Navy fans have heard this before; Ricky Dobbs was another excellent passer, and there was talk at one time about seeing 20 passes per game to take advantage of it. It didn't materialize then, but it might this year. I think it depends more on how the offensive line performs than the quarterback.

Other than Keenan, the best chance for a breakout year is probably at the fullback position with the tandem of Noah Copeland and Chris Swain. 2012 was a little unusual in that a lot of Navy's opponents lined up in a way that made the fullback less of a factor. Copeland was limited to 162 carries in 13 games last year. By comparison, his predecessor, Alexander Teich, had 186 carries in only 11 games in 2011. Assuming that these defenses were an aberration and that the fullback will return to its typical prominence in the offense, both Copeland and Swain should have very productive seasons.

Copeland performed well whenever he had the opportunity to carry the load. He had 15+ carries in only 5 games, but in those games he ran for 489 yards and 4 TDs while averaging 5.1 ypc. His best asset is his vision and the ability to find the correct running lane. Swain, on the other hand, is more of the physical specimen. He was gradually mixed into the offense over the last 4 games, culminating with 93 yards and a TD on only 4 carries against Arizona State. He will become more of a factor as he learns to run around people instead of through them.

4. You're breaking in 4 new starters in the front 7---is this the biggest worry on defense?

Yes, although turnover is sort of a fact of life at a service academy. The transfer of nose guard Danny Ring hurts after he established himself as a starter in the second half of 2012, but the coaching staff feels very good about the linebackers. There are only 3 seniors at the top of the depth chart right now, so the defense might be a year away from being truly great (by Navy standards). As young as this group is, though, they have a lot of game experience and should be a better unit in 2013.

5. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo lost just 13 games in his first 3 full seasons at Navy but he's suffered 12 over the past 2 years. Navy is going on a decade with increased expectations and a lot of success so is Niumatalolo's job in any kind of danger? What are your expectations for 2013?

Coach Niumatalolo isn't even close to anything resembling a hot seat. The service academies are the most difficult job in coaching. When you find a coach able to thrive in such a unique and challenging environment, you'd better not have an itchy trigger finger. After three decades of Navy football futility, it'll take a whole hell of a lot more than one 5-7 season for anyone to start thinking about making a change. Anyone that matters, anyway. Fans might go wild with their expectations, but the athletic director's goals for the program haven't changed: winning seasons, bowl berths, and Commander-in-Chief's Trophies. Those goals might change once Navy starts conference play, but for now they're being met.

As for 2013, it's hard to tell. Navy should be a better team, but the schedule could also be that much harder. Duke was a bowl team a year ago. San Jose State won 11 games. Western Kentucky is coming off of back-to-back winning seasons, and Toledo is a MAC contender every year. Those guys, plus Pitt, Indiana, Notre Dame, and the annual CIC Trophy round-robin make for a very difficult schedule; maybe not by Notre Dame standards, but certainly for a service academy. To match last season's 8-5 mark would be a real accomplishment.

6. There has been a lot of volatility across the college football landscape in recent years but Notre Dame remains as committed as ever to a relationship with Navy. What are your thoughts on this series as we enter the 87th meeting between these two schools?

I think the biggest testament to the value of this series for Navy is that they made it a condition of membership when joining the Big East. One of the reasons why the American Athletic Conference is going with an 8-game conference schedule-- maybe the reason-- is to ensure that Navy can continue playing Notre Dame. Other than the Army game, Notre Dame is Navy's biggest money maker and recruiting draw. Its value is as practical as it is sentimental. The rivalry might be one-sided, but it's a rivalry nonetheless. It's nice to see it survive conference realignment when so many other series have not.

7. Did you make it to the Ireland game last year? Whether or not you did what were your thoughts on that experience? Would you like to see something similar in the future and are there a few places in the United States that you'd like to play the Notre Dame game, perhaps like San Diego?

I did not go to last year's game, although I did make the last trip to Ireland in 1996 as a student. It was an amazing experience. As great as it was, though, I would rather not do it again. If it was up to me, Navy's home games in the series would always be played in Baltimore. Navy isn't a large state school that dumps thousands of graduates into the area every year. It's only 4000 undergraduates, has no grad school, draws students from all over the country, and sends them all over the world when they graduate.

Navy doesn't have the ingredients that most other schools use to develop a local following. The situation isn't helped by taking the biggest name of the home schedule and playing the game in Timbuktu. Making Baltimore Navy football's second home for marquee games rewards season ticket holders, increases local media coverage of the program, and gives casual college football fans a reason to go to Navy games. Regardless, if Notre Dame wants games in Ireland, they're going to happen.

~~~

PROJECTED 2013 MIDSHIPMEN DEPTH CHART

BOLD denotes returning starter

+ denotes post-grad year at the Naval Prep Academy prior to entering USNA.

*Quarterback

Keenan Reynolds, So.

Trey Miller, Sr. +

John Hendrick, Jr.

Navy went into last fall having to replace 2011 starter Kriss Proctor and it was rising junior Trey Miller who won the job coming out of camp. Miller started the first 5 games of 2012 but really struggled and found himself on the bench by October after an injury and never earned the job back. He was both ineffective as a runner (293 yards, 3.3 YPC) and couldn't spark the passing game (35 for 59, 399 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT).

In came true freshman Keenan Reynolds who played much better and steadied the offense. Reynolds was a little more efficient as a runner (649 yards, 4.0 YPC) and scored a team-leading 10 touchdowns on the ground too. He wasn't as accurate in the passing game but Reynolds brought more explosiveness and finished the season going 61 for 108, 898 yards, 9 TD, 2 INT.

Navy will stick with Reynolds after his strong finish to 2012 (Miller was dismissed from the Academy in June and moved to slotback anyway), although I would point out that he didn't start against Notre Dame, Penn State, and San Jose State while also struggling in his only start against a ranked team during their bowl game.

*Slotback

Geoffrey Whiteside, Jr. +

Demond Brown, So. +

Marcus Thomas, Sr. +

*Fullback

Noah Copeland, Jr. +

Chris Swain, So. +

Quentin Ezell, So. +

*Slotback

Darius Staten, Sr. +

Ryan Williams-Jenkins, Jr. +

Colin Osborne, So. +

Navy has to replace both slotback starters from a year ago including Gee Gee Greene who had a fine career and led the Midshipmen in rushing and was second in receiving last fall. The good news is that including both quarterbacks they are bringing back 4 of their top 6 rushers worth well over 2,000 yards. Navy also returns the players who scored 24 out of their 28 rushing touchdowns in 2012.

Noah Copeland returns at fullback where he totaled 738 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground last season while also chipping in 12 receptions for 91 yards. Chris Swain was the backup last year as a freshman and rumbled for 154 yards at 10.2 per rush.

Both of the projected starters at slotback grabbed some experience last year. Staten rushed for 184 yards and a score while Whiteside rushed for 111 yards.

*Wide Receiver

Shawn Lynch, Sr. +

Matt Aiken, Sr. +

Hayden Maples, Sr. +

*Wide Receiver

Casey Bolena, Sr. +

Brendan Dudeck, Jr.

Starting wideout Brandon Turner is gone after leading the team in all receiving categories. In combination with slotback Gee Gee Greene, Navy is losing half of their receiving output from 2012.

Shawn Lynch returns as a senior following 14 receptions and 281 yards last season. Casey Bolena is the projected new starter at wide receiver after grabbing 13 balls and 1 touchdown in 2012.

*Left Tackle

Graham Vickers, Sr. +

Joey Gaston, So. +

Will Strauss, Jr.

*Left Guard

E.K. Binns, So.

Kyle Cregge, Jr. +

Greg Eason, So. +

*Center

Tanner Fleming, Jr. +

Brandon Greene, So.

Blaze Ryder, So. +

*Right Guard

Jake Zuzek, Jr. +

Thomas Stone, Sr.

Zach Laniewski, So. +

*Right Tackle

Bradyn Heap, Jr. +

Matthew Van Halanger, Sr. +

Sam Womack, Sr. +

Graham Vickers started 11 games at right tackle last year as well as the season opener at center. He's making the transition to left tackle for 2013. Bradyn Heap started 2 games at right tackle last season and will remain there this fall.

On the interior both starters are back at center and right guard. Fleming made 11 starts at center and Zuzek started every game at right guard for the Middies in 2012. Sophomore E.K. Binns is the projected new starter at left guard and did not make any starts last season.

*Left Defensive End

Paul Quessenberry, Jr. +

Aaron Davis, Jr. +

Michael Huf, Sr.

*Nose Guard

Barry Dabney, Sr. +

Danny Ring, Jr.

Bernard Sarra, So. +

*Right Defensive End

Evan Palelei, Sr.

Will Anthony, So. +

Sean Reaver, So. +

Navy loses a trio of seniors on the defensive line in Wes Henderson (42 tackles, 5 for loss, 3.5 sacks), Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (14 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Colin Sturdivant (5 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack in 6 games) but only Henderson was a starter in 2012.

6 linemen return that saw legit minutes last year including defensive end Evan Palelei who started all 13 games in 2012 and totaled 29 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and half a sack. At nose guard Barry Dabney is back after making 10 starts (21 tackles) and Danny Ring is the backup having started the other 3 games with 17 tackles, 2 for loss, and 1 sack.

Paul Quessenberry (17 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack) backed up Palelei last season and is projected to switch to the left side and become the starter. A few of the backups like Will Anthony and Bernard Sarra saw plenty of action last year and provide nice depth.

*Outside Linebacker

Jordan Drake, Jr.

Josh Tate, Jr. +

Chris Johnson, Jr.

*Middle Linebacker

James Britton, Jr.

Vinnie Mauro, Sr.

Anthony Lewis, Jr.

*Middle Linebacker

Cody Peterson, Sr.

Joe Worth, Jr.

Maika Polamalu, Jr.

*Outside Linebacker

Obi Uzoma, Jr.

A.K. Akpunku, So. +

D.J. Sargenti, Sr. +

Navy is hit particularly hard at linebacker where they'll lose 3 out of their team's top 4 tacklers from a season ago. Matt Warrick, Keegan Wetzel, and Brye French are all gone from Annapolis leaving behind a combined 252 tackles, 22.5 for loss, and 7 sacks in 2012. Wetzel will be especially missed on the outside after putting up a team-leading 16 tackles for loss and 7 sacks.

Luckily for the Middies they've rotated a lot of bodies at linebacker so there's not a large void of experience. Jordan Drake (49 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2 sacks) made every start at outside linebacker last year and Cody Peterson (67 tackles, 2 for loss) made 9 starts in the middle while splitting time with Brye French.

James Britton (7 tackles) moves from safety and will compete with Vinnie Mauro (1 tackle) for the opening middle linebacker spot while Obi Uzoma (13 tackles) is projected to fill the empty outside linebacker spot. Josh Tate (23 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack) played quite a bit in 2012 and could challenge for a starting position on the outside as well.

*Rover

Wave Ryder, Sr.

Shelley White, So. +

Mike Markovsky, So. +

George Jamison, Jr.

*Field Corner

Kwazel Bertrand, So. +

Quincy Adams, So. +

Eric Johnson, Jr. +

*Boundary Corner

Parrish Gaines, Jr.

Myer Krah, So. +

*Free Safety

Chris Ferguson, Jr. +

Lorentez Barbour, So.

Edward Robinson, So. +

Navy loses a couple bodies in the secondary none more important than Rover Tra'ves Bush who finished 2nd on the team with 88 tackles last year. They also lose Jonathan Wev who started 2012 at corner but had to retire after the VMI game following his 3rdconcussion of the season.

For this fall they'll be moving Wave Ryder (53 tackles) to Rover from free safety where he made 11 start in 2012. Chris Ferguson (37 tackles) will stay at free safety where he made 2 starts last fall.

Parrish Gaines is back after starting every game at corner last year. He racked up 69 tackles and 2 tackles for loss in 2012. Kwazel Bertrand (39 tackles) made 7 starts after Wev retired while Quincy Adams (28 tackles) filled in and made 4 starts at corner as well.

~~~

Final Thoughts

As I said in the Air Force preview the academies are tough to predict in comparison to your typical D-1 program. On the one hand Navy was outscored 146-41 in 3 games against major conference opponents last year and are just 13-12 over the past 2 seasons. Then again, the Middies got back to 8 wins in 2012 making that 9 out of the last 10 seasons hitting that mark (2011 being the outlier) and they did beat Indiana (yeah I know) plus losing to Rutgers and South Carolina by a combined 4 points a couple years ago.

Perhaps it seems like they are slipping back into their pre-Paul Johnson ways but I tend to think the program is fairly stable as a 7 to 9 win outfit with the potential to give ranked teams a lot of trouble.

Navy looks pretty solid on both sides of the ball, although a recent rape investigation may remove a couple as yet unidentified players out of the starting lineup. They seem to be missing a go-to guy at the slotback position but Reynolds is a promising young quarterback and there's enough experience up front for the offense to keep doing its thing in the triple option. The defense appears in even better shape even with losing a few of their top tacklers from 2012. There's a lot of experience returning on that side of the ball and that's always a positive.

My theory has always been if you spread the field on offense with better athletes you'll almost always beat Navy. There's always a lot of concern about stopping the triple option but overwhelming the Middies with offense has always been the easiest path to victory. It's a small sample size and although Navy is 1-3 over the past 2 seasons against BCS teams that run a spread (0-3 versus pro-style BCS teams) they have been outscored in those games by an average of 49-20 as opposed to just 26-16 against the pro-style teams. I'd be interested to see what Navy's record is over a longer period of time but that is research for another day.

This leads me to my point that Notre Dame is competent enough in their spread offense, yes even with Tommy Rees, to pile up the points. The Irish have scored 106 points over the past two seasons against the Midshipmen and I expect another strong performance by the Notre Dame offense. Perhaps a 3rd straight season of scoring 50+ points is too much to ask but something over 35 is highly probable.

Predicted Game Day Spread: Navy (+18.5)

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